Wegmans Cruelty: An Unofficial Blog

This is an unofficial blog and informational archive related to the WEGMANSCRUELTY film and resulting campaign.

Please see that page for more information.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Activist group targets Wegmans:
Calling for boycott of eggs produced by caged hens in N.Y.

By Virginia Terhune
The Jeffersonian

Dressed in a chicken sit, an activist aims to catch the eye of Wegmanns customers in Hunt Valley. Ross is with the Baltimore Animal Rights Coalition.


Onlookers might say they'd have better things to do than put on a chicken suit and pass out fliers along Shawan Road on New Year's Day, but the activists in the suits say they have a good reason for being there.

They want people to stop buying eggs produced by Wegmans grocery store, which they claim come from hens living in extremely crowded, sometimes painful and lethal, conditions, a charge Wegmans refutes.

"We're just asking the public not to buy their eggs and to think about how animals are raised for food," said an activist, 22, a landscaper and part-time construction worker who lives in Pikesville.

This activist is a founding member of the Baltimore Animal Rights Coalition, which has been demonstrating since the Wegmans store opened in the Hunt Valley Towne Centre in early October.

The activists, several of whom are vegetarians opposed to factory farming, are encouraging customers not to buy the Wegmans brand eggs.

If you do buys eggs, they say, buy them from farms that produce eggs in cage-free (barn) or free-range (outdoor) conditions, options that Wegmans and other local supermarkets also offer.

They are also asking anyone who is concerned about the issue to fill out a Wegmans customer service card and sign a petition.

conditions on film

The activists also are distributing fliers and a DVD called "Wegmans Cruelty," produced by members of Compassionate Consumers, an activist group in Rochester, N.Y., where Wegmans is based. The DVD is available on the group's Web site.

The DVD includes a segment shot by three activists who illegally broke into the Wegmans egg farm in Wolcott, N.Y., in 2004 to document conditions. District Attorney Richard Healy of Wayne County subsequently headed an investigation that concluded Wegmans was not violating any of New York's animal-cruelty laws.

The activists were indicted by a grand jury in September and charged with third-degree trespassing, third-degree burglary and larceny. Their trial is set for March 20.

The Wegmans egg farm, which has been run by the Wadsworth family for three generations, houses up to 750,000 hens that supply eggs to Wegmans' nearly 70 stores in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.

The hens typically lay about one egg a day for 18 months before they are slaughtered. When they are 6 to 10 days old, the tips of their beaks are clipped and cauterized to prevent aggressive pecking.

The hens live in wire cages, where as many as seven fit into a space the size of a large file cabinet drawer.

The DVD footage shows hens crowded into cages with wire mesh floors, stacked several levels high, which, activists say, under the best of conditions would prevent the chickens from doing natural behaviors such as dust bathing.

Systems are in place to convey manure away from the cages, but the DVD shows a shot of a hen with manure on her head and also shows activists freeing hens with their necks stuck in the wire mesh, keeping them from food and water.

Activists also are shown pulling several dead, dried-out chicken carcasses from cage floors, where other chickens have been standing on the remains of their cage mates.

Activists claim the birds are forced to endure a lifetime of such conditions so that consumers can pay $1 for a dozen eggs instead of $2 or $3.

"The day that they're slaughtered is a release from a terrible existence, from a living hell, and all for low-priced food," Adam Durand, president of Compassionate Consumers and one of the activists facing charges, says in the DVD.

wegmans' response

The anti-cage campaign in Hunt Valley appears to have had "very little impact" on customers, said Jo Natale, director of media and consumer relations for Wegmans. "We sell a lot of eggs at the store."

People have not been filling out customer cards, and if they do ask about the eggs, they're given a flier that states Wegmans' position, a version of which is also on the company Web site.

Natale refutes the claim that the hens are treated inhumanely and questions whether all of the footage was shot in the Wegmans chicken houses.

"We do not believe all of these images come from our farm," she said.

She also said some of the information in the DVD is not true, referring to one of the activists holding up a hen with a swollen abdomen and implying it had an infection.

"That's what a bird looks like that is about ready to lay an egg," said Natale, who also refuted the scenes of dead hens that were left to rot in cages.

"A dead bird is possible, but it's not what I see on a regular basis," said Jason Wadsworth, who manages the farm, during a telephone conversation.

The DVD also shows gleaming black beetles crawling over manure piles. The beetles are deliberately introduced, along with wasps, to control flies, Natale said.

Natale said Wegmans meets or exceeds standards for cage space, food and air and water quality set by the United Egg Producers, based near Atlanta, which instituted a voluntary compliance program in 2002.

Members undergo a yearly audit, which Wegmans recently passed with a perfect score of 200 points, according to the audit report. Members who score less than perfectly are expected to make improvements, said Diane Storey, a spokeswoman for United Egg Producers.

Natale also said that Wegmans continues to upgrade its facilities.

"We're always trying to tap into whatever current science there is, which is always changing,'" she said.

United Egg Producers, for example, has increased the standard for floor space per hen from 48 square inches to 67 square inches.

Wegmans is meeting the standards by putting up to seven hens in a cage with floor space of 24 inches by 20 inches, Wadsworth said. Up to four birds are kept in cages measuring 20 by 16 inches.

Producers who use cages say the practice reduces the mortality rates of hens because it allows better control over predators. Wegmans says its mortality rates run about 8 percent compared with 20 to 40 percent for cage-free and free-range hens, Natale said.

Housing hens in cages also keeps them from manure, reducing the risk of disease, they say. Cage farming enables a consistent source of eggs for Wegmans stores, while also providing a source of clean, disease-free eggs and a cheap source of protein for consumers, according to Wegmans.

Natale also pointed out that from a business point of view, it's not in the best interests of the companyto mistreat its hens because that would translates into the production of fewer eggs.

"Wegmans is probably one of the best from the standpoint of animal welfare," said Benjamin Lucio- Martinez, a veterinarian with Cornell University who works with egg farmers, including Wegmans, to identify problems related to drops in production.

"Their mortality rates are low, the lights are not too bright, there's good ventilation and comfortable temperatures, and there's food and water available all the time," he said. "They do a very good job."

Lucio- Martinez said he occasionally sees dead birds during his visits but had not seen any decomposing in cages.

"There's use and abuse of animals, and I think Wegmans is using the chickens, not abusing them," he said.

Targeting Wegmans

Activists are quick to acknowledge Wegmans' reputation for selling quality food at affordable prices. Fortune also named it the best place to work in the country.

That's in fact why they're targeting the company - because it claims to have high standards and is in a position to set an example for other producers.

"It's really its only black spot," said Vladimir Konstantinov, one of the Hunt Valley activisits who lives in Reisterstown and works as a computer specialist for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"Personally, I think the company is excellent and one of the best companies to work for," he said. But "they're trying to produce the eggs as cheaply as possible, and it's the hens that suffer."

Activists also say that Wegmans is uniquely positioned to do something about the conditions because it is the only large chain that owns its own egg farm.

"They have every power to make that change," said Ross about the potential to go cage free.

Natale, however, the company has no plans to change its operations.

"We're not prepared to do that at this point," Natale said. "There are no plans to phase out cage production."

The Hunt Valley activists, meanwhile, say they plan to continue demonstrating until Wegmans considers talking about the issue.

Some recognize that many consumers don't want to delve too deeply into how their food is produced.

"It's not an easy sell; people don't really want to hear it," said Bob Pyle of Catonsville, one of the activists and a longtime vegetarian who owns a company that cleans and repairs gutters.

Other activists say the more people learn about factory farming, the more they are likely to get involved.

"The more you know, the more upset you become - you feel like doing something," said Stewart Lyons, a lawyer in the Public Defenders Office in Towson who wore one of the chicken suits on New Year's Day.

"The birds are in living hell, they suffer," he said.

E-mail Virginia Terhune at Virginia Terhune@patuxent.com


  • At 7:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    You know what. They're fucking chickens. I ate one of them for dinner tonight. Arn't there bigger fish to fry such as homicide rates, poverty, and polical corruption? You people are a bunch of ignorant vegitarians (eat a steak and you'd feel better). There is a reason humans are on the top of the food chain. How come you're not complaining about cruelty to soy beans. Get a life.
    and if you decide to debate with me, contact me at wzv0777@sjfc.edu

    -Bill Vaughn


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